Super 14 enters play-off mode early
May 12, 2010
The Waratahs huddle at training as they prepare for their do-or-die clash with the Hurricanes © Getty Images
Stormers 38 - 10 Bulls Cheetahs 59 - 10 Lions Reds 38 - 36 Highlanders Blues 30 - 20 Chiefs Sharks 27 - 22 Force Waratahs 32 - 16 Hurricanes Crusaders 40 - 22 Brumbies
It could be said this season's Super 14 finals have started a week early as the top six face off in search of a place in the historic last ever play-offs under the current format.
Last week we told you to get your calculators out to work through the many permutations but this week the equation is a lot simpler - the winner takes all and the loser will have to wait until next year.
The Bulls have secured top spot and could controversially rest a number of stars against the Stormers, who must win to secure a home semi-final or potentially still miss out on the play-offs altogether with a loss. Third-through-sixth play each other in what are effectively play-off matches for top four spots, while the Reds, in seventh, need a bonus point win and hope a match above them ends in a draw or that the Stormers lose by a large margin if they are to sneak in.
Round 14 kicks off with our Game of the Week in Christchurch as the sixth-placed Crusaders host the fourth-placed Brumbies with everything on the line.
In the round's other key battle, the Waratahs then welcome the resurgent Hurricanes to Sydney on Friday night. Undefeated on home turf, the Waratahs have hauled themselves up to third and have a chance of earning a home semi-final if a win coincides with a Stormers loss in Pretoria. A Hurricanes win would almost certainly see them join the Bulls, Stormers and the winner of the Crusaders-Brumbies game in the finals. The 'Canes have won four in a row after a strange run of four losses against South African opposition in the middle of an otherwise flawless season.
Waratahs coach Chris Hickey has made two forced changes for the match, with Dan Palmer coming in for key prop Benn Robinson (arm) and Rory Sidey replacing reserve outside back Sosene Anesi (shoulder) on the bench after the pair were injured in last week's win over the Chiefs. Hickey will continue with Berrick Barnes at No.10 after the fly-half's improved form last week compared to his stint at inside centre.
All Blacks centre Conrad Smith returns to the Hurricanes' starting line-up but flanker Victor Vito will miss a second consecutive match. Smith was ruled out of the Hurricanes' 44-21 victory over the Reds due to concussion, but was restored to the No.13 jersey in place of Jason Kawau, who was bracketed with Willie Ripia on the bench. Vito failed a fitness test on his calf muscle strain, meaning Michael Paterson will wear the No 6 jersey for a second consecutive week.
In the other change to the starting lineup, loosehead prop John Schwalger returns in place of Jacob Ellison who drops to the bench. Last week's hat-trick Hosea Gear retains his place on the wing outside in-form centre Ma'a Nonu in a backline that's really hitting its straps at the right time.
The competition's two in-form teams, the Sharks and Force, face off in one of the week's three dead rubbers. If only the second half of the season counted this would be a top of the table clash but disastrous opening have consigned these teams to the also-rans. There are still international jerseys and plenty of pride on the line ahead of Test season.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has stuck with the team that accounted for the Stormers last time out making just one, injury-enforced, change to the side. The injury to Willem Alberts sees Jacques Botes back in the starting line-up, the opening created on the bench provides an opportunity for scrum-half Charl McLeod.
Forc boss John Mitchell has recalled Pek Cowan, Ben Whittaker and Ben McCalman into his tight five for what he believes will be a tough physical battle to finish the season. Combative scrum-half Brett Sheehan also returns in what Mitchell said is "probably the strongest mix we can put together".
The Blues host the Chiefs in a New Zealand derby with relatively little meaning. The inconsistent Blues, fittingly, are six and six going into the match and a win here would at least mean their frustrating campaign was more good than bad. The Chiefs, unlike the Sharks and Force, started the season brilliantly but have faded badly, failing to win since Round 8.
Keven Mealamu is back to captain the hosts in their final home game, which is nearing a sell-out. The Blues' All Blacks fullback Isaia Toeava misses out with a hip problem, allowing new dad Rudi Wulf to come back on the wing as Paul Williams shifts to No.15. Rene Ranger and Jerome Kaino are doubtful with minor knocks, with Luke McAlister and Peter Saili ready to fill in if necessary.
Chiefs coach Ian Foster has taken the opportunity to experiment for the future by throwing some young backs into the starting side, although his changes have been somewhat forced due to injuries. Fly-half Trent Renata, inside centre Phil Burleigh and wing Save Tokula all start after playing just one game off the bench previously. Scrum-half Brendon Leonard starts, Culum Retallick comes in at lock and there is a whole new front row consisting Toby Smith, Ben Afeaki and hooker Aled de Malmanche.
The Super 14 entertainers, the Reds, will be desperate to go out with a bang in front of their own fans when the Highlanders travel to Brisbane on Saturday. An unlikely set of results could still give the Reds hope of what would arguably be a deserved finals berth but they will most likely be looking to finish what has been an undoubtedly successful first campaign under Ewen McKenzie on a high. The Reds, the only team to beat both the Bulls and Stormers this year, may look back on their last-minute Round 1 to the Waratahs which, if reversed, would have put them in position to join the play-offs. The Highlanders, on the other hand, have struggled all year and only the winless Lions separate them from the bottom of the table.
McKenzie has rung the changes for the final match, bringing many of his reserves into the starting side. James Slipper and Sean Hardman start in the front row with Greg Holmes, Jake Schatz gets a run at flanker, Ben Tapuai starts at inside centre, and Rod Davies' hamstring injury allows Ben Lucas to start at fullback, with Peter Hynes shifting to the wing. The Highlanders have stayed mostly unchanged. Centre Kenny Lynn returns after a groin strain, moving Ben Smith to his usual position on the wing in place of James Paterson.
The Cheetahs host the Lions in the battle of the South African cellar dwellers, although the Cheetahs have added credibility to their season with back-to-back home wins over the Blues and Force. The Lions are already record losers after their 12th straight defeat last week, and they should be as desperate as ever to avoid going 0-13 in a season. However, desperation hasn't helped them before and they simply appear out of their depth at this level.
Meyer Bosman is in doubt for the Cheetahs with a chest muscle injury, meaning Corne Uys is on standby to move inside from the wing. Wilmaure Louw will come into the starting side in that event.
With the advantage of playing last, the Stormers will know what they need to do when they play host to the Bulls in Cape Town. By that point the Stormers could either be outside the top four or still sitting pretty in a play-off place, but most likely they'll need to win and possibly claim a bonus point to earn a home semi-final. The Bulls secured top spot last week, and could rest up to 13 stars to prepare for the finals.
Stormers wing Bryan Habana will be squaring up to his former team-mates at Newlands having missed the defeat to the Sharks in Durban with a rib injury. More Loose-head prop Wicus Blaauw is also available to bolster the scrum and captain Schalk Burger, who dislocated a finger in the game against the Sharks, is also good to go.
Bakkies Botha will lead a Bulls side featuring two debutants in wing Deon Helberg and back-row Gerrit-Jan van Velze and veteran centre De Wet Barry. In total there are 14 changes to the side that beat the Crusaders at Loftus Versfeld last weekend with Jacques-Louis Potgieter the only survivor. He moves to his favourite fly-half position, while regular impact players like Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Pedrie Wannenburg, Derick Kuün, Flip van der Merwe, Bandise Maku and Bees Roux will earn starts. But the Bulls will be without star wing Gerhard van den Heever, who is serving a two-week suspension for a dangerous tackle in last Friday's game against the Crusaders.